PORTLAND, Ore. – The fifth-ranked Huskies were one point away from sweeping through another Northwest Challenge, but an hour later found themselves finally subduing an upset-minded Gonzaga squad in five sets. After losing two nailbiting sets in the third and fourth, the Huskies (3-0) closed out with a 15-9 fifth set win to clinch the tourney title at the Peter W. Stott Center.
This is the sixth year of the tournament with the Huskies, Gonzaga, Portland State, and Boise State, and the sixth title for UW. But tonight’s match marked the first time the Huskies have lost sets in the tourney. Washington had two match points in the third set, and five more in the fourth set, before winning on their second match point chance in the fifth. The final exhausting line was 25-18, 25-21, 26-28, 30-32, 15-9. This came after the Huskies had swept Portland State just a few hours prior.
Washington hit a very strong .356 for the match but Gonzaga more than held its own at .306 for the night. Five Huskies had double figures in kills, led by junior Kaleigh Nelson’s 18 kills and 16 for junior Krista Vansant. Sophomore Lianna Sybeldon had a big career-high with 13 kills, and Melanie Wade also notched a career-best with 11 to go with no errors for a .647 attack percentage. Jenni Nogueras had 37 assists and Katy Beals had 35, with senior Jenna Orlandini earning a match-high 18 digs. Vansant had 14 digs for another double-double but came out of the game mid-way through the fourth set with an ankle injury and did not return.
“To be honest this match is a good match for us in many ways,” said Head Coach Jim McLaughlin. “It’s going to serve us well down the road. We lost our top player, Krista sprained her ankle, and we lost a couple match points, but we held together. We could have caved in but we didn’t. Gonzaga played great, they did everything right. Our offense played well, our defense broke down, but we can learn a lot from this match.”
In the opening set Gonzaga took a 3-1 lead, but the Huskies then took seven of the next eight points to go up 8-4 and force a Bulldogs timeout. Kaleigh Nelson had an ace and Vansant put away three kills in a row during the stretch. Out of the break, Orlandini had an ace for a 9-4 lead. The teams swapped points for a stretch, with Lianna Sybeldon getting a couple kills to keep UW moving forward. Gonzaga trimmed the lead to two points on a couple occasions, but Melanie Wade had a kill to push it back to 18-15, and another again to make it 20-17. An ace from Jenni Nogueras forced the last Gonzaga timeout at 22-18, but UW forged ahead out of the break with the final three points to win the set, 25-18.
The Bulldogs took an early lead again in the second set, as UW fell behind 4-7 before winning three straight, starting with a Vansant kill, to tie it up. UW took its first lead at 10-9 on a Nogueras ace, and the setter’s serve helped lead to the next two points as well, with Muñoz and Nelson finishing rallies for a 12-9 edge and a Gonzaga timeout. UW looked to stretch the lead, but a 3-0 Gonzaga run cut it back to one at 15-14. A stuff by Wade and Muñoz prevented the tie. Wade then tipped one over the block after a nice rally for a 17-14 edge. Gonzaga pulled within a pair again, but missed a serve and then Sybeldon and Muñoz earned a block for 22-18 and Gonzaga took timeout. Up 23-21, the Huskies got Vansant back to the left pin and Nogueras set her twice in a row, and Vansant delivered two rockets that Gonzaga could not handle to close out the set, 25-21.
Consecutive Orlandini aces gave the Huskies a 5-2 lead early in set three, but Gonzaga answered with a 4-0 run to get back in front, with two aces, one off the tape, helping matters. Wade hammered one from the middle to re-level things. UW hurt its cause with a couple service errors, and then hit one wide to fall behind 10-13. An ace from the Bulldogs made it 15-11 and UW needed timeout. Muñoz hit a sharp angle and found the line from the right side out of the timeout, then Parker converted from the right after a tough Beals serve. The Huskies had the gap down to two but then got caught in the net for a pair of blocking errors and needed timeout again down 14-18. This time it was Vansant to stop the bleeding with a kill out of the back row on a bump set from Orlandini. Nelson hammered two straight kills from the left to make it 17-19 and force a Gonzaga timeout, but GU got a kill in serve-receive out of the break. Muñoz converted the next swing, but Gonzaga again found the floor. After Vansant put one away, Orlandini’s serve led to a free ball and another Vansant kill for 20-21, then UW earned its first roof in a long while, Wade and Muñoz stopping Savannah Blinn to tie it up at 21. Gonzaga then made a hitting error and the Huskies inched back in front. But Orlandini sailed her next serve long. At 23-all, Vansant went with a lofty tip and it fell to the ground for match point. Wade had a swing at it but was dug, and Gonzaga’s setter flipped over a surprise attack for the point. Nelson spiked the next one up the line for a second match point, but Wade served into the net. Gonzaga then won a tough rally to get its first set point, but Nelson saved it with a kill through the block. The Bulldogs earned another set point with a kill, and then Nelson swung long and UW had to play on, losing the set, 28-26.
The Huskies appeared on their way to closing things out late in the fourth set, opening up a three-point lead for the first time at 17-14 on consecutive Gabbi Parker kills. The teams traded sideouts, with Nelson earning a couple kills to get it to 20-17. Muñoz converted and Sybeldon got the Dawgs to match point at 24-21, but then Savannah Blinn had two kills sandwiched around a Gonzaga ace to tie it at 24 and force a Husky timeout. Gonzaga went ahead with a block, and the Huskies had to stave off a few set points, three exactly, which they did with kills from Wade, Parker, and Cassie Strickland. Nelson put UW back up with a kill for match point at 28-27, and again at 29-28, but Gonzaga saved both and then turned the tables again for set point at 29-30. The Bulldogs missed serve for 30-all, but then Strickland donated serve back, and Blinn had a kill to force the fifth set.
At 3-all in the fifth set, the Huskies finally got clicking again and ran off six points in a row to take control. Beals was the server, as Wade notched a couple kills and Parker added one to go with a couple Gonzaga errors. Parker, Nelson, and Wade finished three straight points to build the lead to 12-5. Gonzaga got within five points again, but Parker finished for match point at 14-8. Gonzaga saved the first but Nelson hammered one and got the touch call to end it at 15-9.
Washington will be back on the court in just a couple days for its home opener this Tuesday, Sept. 3, against Seattle U at 7 p.m.